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Posted by Mark Halper

Areva LucVanDenDurpel CERN THEC13

If he were to look over his shoulder, Areva’s Luc Van Den Durpel would see the word “thorium.” With the metal gaining attention as an alternative to uranium fuel, Areva is now stepping up thorium research.

GENEVA – French nuclear giant Areva, a stalwart of the conventional uranium-driven large reactor industry, today announced it is collaborating with €12.8 billion Belgian chemical company Solvay to research the possibilities of deploying thorium as a reactor fuel.

“Solvay and Areva have made an agreement to have a joint R&D program working on the whole set of thorium valorization (validation),” Areva vice president Luc Van Den Durpel said in a presentation at the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 at the CERN physics laboratory here.

Van Den Durpel said the effort would cover “the overall worldwide development related to thorium, both in the nuclear energy field and in the rare earth market.”

Thorium, a mildly radioactive element that supporters believe trumps uranium as a plentiful, safe, effective, weapons-resistant fuel – Noble laureate physicist Carlo Rubbia yesterday referred to its “absolute pre-eminence” over uranium – comes from minerals that also contain rare earth metals vital the to the global economy. Solvay’s business includes rare earth processing, which can leave thorium as a “waste” product that’s subject to strict and costly storage regulations. Companies that have to hold on to thorium would like to find a market for it.

Ven Den Durpel said Areva and Solvay will investigate “resolving the thorium residue issues arising from certain rare earth processing in the past and now.”

As a possible nuclear fuel, he acknowledged that thorium offers advantages such as reducing waste and proliferation risks. “It’s not the devil – you could call it sexy because it’s not plutonium and that why it’s attractive,” he said in reference to uranium’s notorious waste product. He also noted that thorium’s high melting point provides operational advantages.

But the Areva executive, who heads strategic analysis and technology prospects in corporate R&D, said that any chance of Areva using thorium in a reactor is a long way off.

“We would like to demystify thorium,” he said, noting that its benefits are often overstated and hyped, and that it has issues including the management of radioactive isotopes of protactinium and uranium involved in the thorium fuel cycle.

He said there is “not really” a market for thorium in the short term, but that a “medium term” market is a “possibility” that would entail mixing thorium with other fuels like uranium and plutonium in light water reactors. By complementing the other two fuels, thorium could potentially lengthen fuel cycles, reduce waste, and produce uranium 233 for use in other reactors.

But he said any transition to 100 percent thorium fuels would “take decades at least.”

Ven Den Durpel based his thorium assessments on use in light water reactors, and not in alternative reactor designs such as molten salt reactors or pebble beds.

Photo by Mark Halper

Comments

  1. John Preedy says:

    This statement is a good example of the conservatism of the European nuclear industry. In the European context Van Den Durpel is probably right, it will be decades before thorium has a major market share. After all in the West it takes ten years to design, approve, construct and test a new commercial nuclear reactor based on an established design.
    China, however, will have an experimental liquid fluoride thorium reactor running before the end of this decade and will be seeking to build commercial reactors soon after that. They have over 450 people working on this programme.
    Both Europe and the US are now trapped in regulatory structures which actively discourage innovation and the nuclear industry has been conditioned to think the same way. It’s significant that the main promoters of new western nuclear technologies are small start-ups and not established nuclear companies. But it is encouraging that in the last couple of years the message about thorium and new nuclear reactor designs is spreading into the mainstream and even attracting the attention of some of the more open minded environmentalists like James Lovelock and Stephen Tindale.

  2. Robert Weekes says:

    Don’t expect any old school nuclear companies to support liquid thorium fuel because the processes are so much different than what they’re used to, and in the case of uranium oxide pellet manufacturers, it’s in direct competition with their business model. New thinkers, new companies and new political support will have to lead the way!

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